By Wayne Jebian
Joseph A. Rodriguez is well known for the annual Three Kings Day party he throws at his McDonald restaurant on Whalley Avenue in New Haven. Crowds line the street. Children greet politicos dressed in kings’ costumes who hand them gifts while the state’s two U.S. senators and other politicians mingle.
But this is more than just a party that combines politics and philanthropy. It’s a demonstration of one Latino’s influence as a small business owner at a time that increased attention is being focused on small business as a driver of economic growth in Connecticut.
“We have been doing this every year for the past 26 years,” said Joseph A. Rodriguez, owner of this and four other McDonald’s locations in Connecticut that employ more than 200 people. This annual show of generosity, 90 percent of which comes out of Rodriguez’s own pocket, has made the proud patriarch of this restaurant into a symbol of charity and fortitude in the Latino business community.
“From an economic development standpoint, the small businesses in town — people like Joe Rodriguez — have really become an anchor for economic growth in the city,” said Mike Piscitelli, deputy economic development administrator for the city of New Haven. “We’re waiting for the 2012 figures, but in 2011, our jobs base grew by over 1500, a 2 percent growth rate. A lot of that was built on the strength of small businesses in and around the city, particularly in the downtown but also in the neighborhoods.”
State Helping Small Business
In recent years, the state has seemingly gotten the message, establishing channels to provide credit for small businesses, such as the Small Business Express Program administered by the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD). The Thursday before Three Kings Day, Jan. 3, Gov. Dannel Malloy called together a roundtable session at the State Capitol to discuss the program.
According to the DECD, the Small Business Express program has resulted in more than 6,300 jobs created or retained. More than 1600 businesses have applied as of last Thursday, with 494 of them having received financial assistance, 452 denied and 661 applications still in progress.
However, there are those in the state who continue to assert that government should step aside and take its regulations with it, rather than trying to increase its involvement in the private sector. Malvi Gracia-Lennon, a Windsor small business owner and failed Republican state senate candidate, wrote in an email to CTLatinoNews.com, “If we look around us, we can see that the result of the small business loans and the jobs bill of 2011 are invisible jobs that left people worse off.”
Democrat legislators and local officials disagree on the track record of the small business assistance and jobs creation programs created a little more than a year ago. Incoming House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said, “I have heard my own anecdotal evidence of the success of the program in my district, from small business owners in Hamden.”
New Haven’s Piscatelli said, “Just yesterday the owner of a gelato company here, Guiliana’s Gelato, was awarded a Small Business Express grant, which allows her to expand the regional reach of the company. The grant allows her to take the next step and buy the equipment to expand her distribution reach and really stabilize the company moving forward.”
Governor Malloy made sure to praise entrepreneurs who came to this country and chose Connecticut as a home for their businesses. “One of the strengths of Connecticut is in immigration,” he said. “We need to be open to innovation, and innovation isn’t just homegrown.”
Which Businesses Eligible?
Business owners could easily become discouraged about the eligibility of their companies for Small Business Express funding. One reason could be DECD website says that priority will be given to businesses in “Economic-based industries” when applying for revolving loans. Jim Watson, a DECD spokesman, clarified that “‘Economic based businesses’ describes such areas (as) manufacturing, bioscience , IT, healthcare, insurance and financial services, etc.”
This descriptor could appear to exclude a marketing business like Miranda Creative, a Latina-owned company seated at Thursday’s roundtable. Owner Maria Miranda expressed gratitude at being approved by the program, even though her company, a 12-person Norwich-based marketing firm, was not a traditional manufacturer. The governor made a point that inclusiveness had been a personal priority of his when the program was conceived: “That was a little mini-fight between me and the [DECD] commissioner. We took some heat over it.”
The governor invited constructive criticism of the program. Salvatore Carraba of Salmander Designs, a Bloomfield furniture manufacturer, said, “I felt that the contractual piece could be clearer, and more standardized. The closing was on the costly side.”
Miranda disagreed afterward in a phone interview. “My overall thought is that the due diligence is absolutely necessary. It may seem excessive, but it is absolutely necessary to make sure that public money is being used by reputable organizations. I will not say that it isn’t an extensive process, but I do think that it’s absolutely necessary to do that, because otherwise, the opportunity for failure or abuse could happen.”
Miranda says the process went smoothly and cheaply for her company because she found local resources for assistance in completing the application, an example that could be followed by other Latino small businesses whenever possible. “We turned immediately to our partners here in the Norwich Community Development Center, and at no cost to us, they helped us complete the paperwork and forms and helped us walk through the process, and we completed that probably right around September, and we received our funding, I think, by the end of October, maybe early November.”
Popularity Creates Problems
One problem with the Small Business Express program is its popularity. The top of the program’s page on the DECD website reads, “High demand, however, has created a large pool of applicants and led to increased competition and extended processing times. DECD spokesman Jim Watson wrote in an e-mail, “New applicants just need to be aware there is great demand — and a lot of competition — for these funds. We are just advising them that they may need to be patient as we move them through the process.”
Miranda thought that a little technological know-how could go a long way toward speeding up screening and approval. “I do think they could do a better job on the technology process for how to handle it,” she said. “They didn’t have a chance to prepare for the overwhelming reaction they received.”